Bill Hicks used to joke, in his stand-up comedy act, that persons who worked in marketing (and/or advertising, if I recall) should kill themselves. His next line was even funnier: one of these fictional marketers, seemingly unaffected by this venomous suggestion, reacting with approval, “Say, Bill’s really tapping into that ‘anti-marketing’ demographic.” He was not aiming his humorous ire at real persons in a nightclub’s audience, but rather, at Wall Street culture’s nonstop blaring on every broadcast channel, its gaudy visuals on almost every printed page.
Hicks was what I like to call a comicpugilist; he brooked no disrespect for his point of view, abrasive and provocative though it was. He suffered censorship problems, got edited (or just plain dropped) from a few television shows, had to find his success in England after many Stateside career frustrations. He kept slugging away at his favorite topics – religion, drug use, hypocrisy, war – until his tragic, premature death from cancer, in 1994, when he was just thirty-two.
I wonder what he would make of today’s media-saturated world, in which we swim in e-mail and Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Two decades after his time in the spotlight, it seems, everyone is in marketing (and/or advertising), and everyone has a “Brandofone“, and we bloggers are no exception to this. Just yesterday, for example, when I learned that actor Russell Crowe might be developing a Bill Hicks bio-film, I thought, “Say, that’s going to be excellent for his brand,” because hey, it’s 2013, and we think (and say, and write) things like that now.
Yes, I’m a comic-book nerd. This week marks the second anniversary of the company-wide “New 52” reboot of DC Comics, which swept out the stables, so to speak, and began the old characters anew with an edgy, revised history, melding some of their Vertigo and WildStorm narratives to the one depicted in the main “Earth-1” timeline. Justice League, the “flagship” title of this reboot, assembled an all-star team of superheroes – including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and Green Lantern – to thwart an alien invasion. So detailed was this origin story’s “narrative arc” that it required six monthly issues to relate the events of a single, apocalyptic night.
Fifty-one other monthly books immediately debuted; as time went on, some low-selling books were canceled to make room for new ones, totaling 52 titles per “wave”. Marvel Comics, coming off the humongous success of their super-team movie, The Avengers, have employed a similar mechanism, to restart their own line of books, starring Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk, as well as the X-Men. DC hopes to duplicate that film’s cinematic success, commencing its own blockbusters with this summer’s Man of Steel.
Sequential art, as a dramatic-storytelling tool, dates as far as twenty-five thousand years back in time, to those early cave paintings of “Dappled horses” in Peche Merle, France. Comic-book art, the widespread modern expression of same, isn’t nearly so long in the tooth; the “superhero era” dates back to 1938’s first issue of Action Comics. I suspect the original creators didn’t foresee their titanic creations still selling into the twenty-first century, let alone making hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office! One ironic problem of keeping these caped crime-fighters relevant to audiences is their very longevity as successful franchises, but that’s why you only see one story a month; comic book time is very different from the real kind – Marvel, for example, uses what appears to be a “sliding scale” to stretch their tales over years.
The cool thing about this reboot stuff is the chance to collect some of these books from the very first issue on. An editorial decision to engage in “world-building” (sometimes in a literal sense, given the science-fiction books in these franchises) can help tie in events from one book into those of others, lending them added realism. The drag is that certain books get cancelled just as they’re getting good, while other books, while being less involving to read, persist because of their success in the marketplace, because this is still a business. As a kid, I just liked it when my heroes would mop the floor with the baddies; I still enjoy them, but I also study how these books are written and edited, how “arcs” unfold over many months – all for professional reasons, of course! It’s light reading, but it’s heavy pop-cultural stuff, and of late, it’s a cash cow for these companies.
I won’t say I’ve had it rough, but I belong to an enigmatic minority group. Many think we’re absentminded, clumsy, lack certain job skills, are more prone to illness and injury, and won’t live as long as members of the majority will (or can) do. Some of the more charming words wielded against us include the Greek Skaios, which means “ill-omened”; the French gauche, “awkward”; even the Gaelic Ciotóg, which means “the strange one” (shame on my ancestors for that one, I guess). When I was just a small fry, I learned that names can’t hurt me – which is good, because I also learned that I am left-handed, and that, I couldn’t change.
I’m exaggerating about the ’embattled’ part, sure; this does not rise to the level of ethnic or gender struggles. In fact, this seems to be a good time to be a southpaw; I trust my brother Chris, also a lefty, would agree.
The bias against left-handedness isn’t as intense now as it was in, for instance, ancient Roman times, when a southpaw was “sinister” while a right-hander was a “dexter“. Today, you might say a smooth or skillful act was “dexterous”, but a foiled effort was “maladroit”, i.e. bad-right, and whereelse would your “bad” right be, if not to the left of your “good” one?
It’s tough to be a southpaw at first, even in a forgiving atmosphere, discovering how much of the world is engineered to make dexters happy. Keys for doors and car engines are designed for right-hand use, which means a lefty has to get better at right-handed manipulation, which is a good thing. Writing by hand, of course, can be just ridiculous – on right-handed desks, in particular, it’s a fine way to get ink on oneself and, even worse, get a sore neck from having to turn sideways. Scissors, saws and many other hand tools, automated teller machines, and loads of other things are not built to appeal to our “niche market”, but we’re nothing if not stubborn, and willing to learn.
The bright side of being a southpaw, of course, is the company one keeps. Something about being perceived and treated as kooky outsiders seems to bring out the best in left-handed folks. We may never hear of a brilliant left-handed saxophone player, given the current lack of left-handed saxophones, but I bet you’ve enjoyed the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel, Erroll Garner, Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Iggy Pop, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, and Kurt Cobain. Southpaw artists:
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Albrecht Dürer, and M. C. Escher. Lewis Carroll was left-handed; so was Mark Twain. Ramses II, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Charlemagne and Lord Horatio Nelson (who had to switch over from the right hand he lost) were world-shaking lefty warriors; southpaw Mohandas Gandhi shook the world, too, but for peace.
Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of gravity and motion must have sprung from his over-active right-brain, which of course governs left-sided functioning. Left-handed entrepreneurs include Henry Ford, who mass-produced cars, and Bill Gates, who did likewise for computers. “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and Oscar de la Hoya left their mark in professional boxing; lefties Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson are two of my dad’s golf icons; Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel and Reggie Jackson are famous baseball players. The movies made lefties Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Harpo Marx, Robert Redford, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, Robert De Niro, and Whoopi Goldberg famous. Left-handed U.S. Presidents include not only Barack Obama, but James A. Garfield, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (if memory serves), George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well.
Being a southpaw would seem to be, to say the least, a surmountable obstacle. So: even though it’s taken up my entire evening to write this, I’d like to wish everyone a HappyInternationalLeft–HandersDay… yes, even if you’re right-handed!
I intended to write a self–contained, half–hour science-fiction adventure play, but I had too little experience, and too much narrative, to resolve the piece within twenty-six pages. I had stumbled, by happy accident, upon a cliff-hanger ending. My respect for the audio medium has only grown; even after writing six half-hour episodic scripts (so far), I’m still learning how it’s done.
Radio seems the one storytelling medium in which “Show, don’t tell” does not work. The audio character can only inform the listening audience what is happening, which would lead to a lot of clunky dialogue, stating what would be far too obvious, if we could see it. These notes apply not only to writing dramatic or comedic stories, but to radio advertising; remember, my dad likened an ad to a short story – or a short play.
I first heard some recorded radio dramas in high school, and thought they were fantastic. I could ‘recast’ the same story, each time I heard it, with someone new, and sound effects were enough to help me picture the scenery and the action. It was a best-of-both-worlds situation: coupling the intensity of watching a visual drama with the intimacy of reading a printed story. I remember trying to picture what musicians looked like while they recorded some of my favorite songs; most actual ‘music videos’ later paled, by comparison.
Knowing that is one thing; writing one of these suckers turned out to be… a much bigger challenge. I had the characters, I had the plot, but I had to “sell it” with dialogue, a narrating track to connect scenes, sound effects, and music, and nothing else. I wouldn’t write someone saying, “Look at that green dinosaur, charging towards us!” I would write the stage direction, “SFX: [Dinosaur roars.]” and follow it up with more naturalistic dialogue, such as: “It sounds mad… is it supposed to be that green? I’d be sick, if I looked like that.” Modern audiences are sophisticated; they can fill in the blanks.
“The hero’s journey always begins with the call. One way or another, a guide must come to say, ‘Look, you’re in Sleepy Land. Wake. Come on a trip. There is a whole aspect of your consciousness, your being, that’s not been touched. So you’re at home here? Well, there’s not enough of you there.’ And so it starts.”
— Joseph Campbell
The modern master of myth behind The Hero With a Thousand Faces might add: This could apply to anyone’s life, including yours and mine, because we’re all on our individual quests; even if we think our adventures aren’t so much, everyone has a potential to be Luke (or Lucy) Skywalker, and an exhortation to raid the unknown somehow.